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Concert pairing offers rare musical insight

  • Jul 10, 2012
By Marilyn Farwell From The Register-Guard July 10, 2012  Over the years, the Oregon Bach Festival has introduced its audiences to many new works. Some, like Krzyzstof Penderecki’s “Credo,” were commissioned for the festival, while others, like Felix Mendelssohn’s only opera, “Der Onkel aus Boston,” were rarities. For most American audiences, Michael Tippett’s oratorio “A Child of Our Time” is a new experience. And for those who heard it on Saturday evening at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall, it was a profound revelation. It may seem odd that a British composer’s mid-20th century work would be coupled on the program with a minor piece by J.S. Bach. But Tippett owed much to Bach’s music. Tippett modeled the structure of his oratorio on Bach’s mingling of arias and choruses in his great Passions, and like Bach, Tippet composed intricate counterpoint. The differences are also crucial. Instead of telling the story of Christ’s last days, Tippett focused on an act of violence that contributed to World War II. And instead of using well-known chorales, Tippett incorporated American spirituals into his otherwise modern, dissonant musical style. Bach’s Mass in G Major contains only two parts of the usual Mass setting: the Kyrie and Gloria. In keeping with the baroque style, conductor Matthew Halls reduced the size of both orchestra and chorus, making the inner voices more transparent. The chorus was remarkably precise in Bach’s fugal sections, and the soloists were expansive in the lyrical moments of the Gloria. Despite starkly different vocal timbres, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Sophie Harmsen sang a lovely soprano-­alto duet. And bass Tyler Duncan displayed a warm resonant voice capable of florid runs. His voice danced through the music. Oboist Allan Vogel and tenor Tom Randle teamed up for one of Bach’s extraordinary instrumental-­vocal duets, although Randle sang his part in a dramatic, romantic fashion that contradicted the simple theological statement and baroque style itself. The centerpiece of the concert was Tippett’s hourlong oratorio, which moves dramatically from the horrors of violence and oppression to a profound hope for renewal. The festival’s Berwick Chorus again sang the canon-like choral parts with precision, and it was joined by the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy for moving renditions of the spirituals. As a conductor, Halls sculpts the music, drawing out minute interpretative details. The chorus and orchestra responded readily to his movements, although at times the music was sluggish, filled with too much detail. The soloists were responsible for much of the oratorio’s dramatic arc, and each displayed the intense emotions and the impeccable diction needed for engaging the audience. In this modern work, tenor Tom Randle’s involvement and expressive voice were both appropriate and moving. Fine alto Anita Krause was poig­nant in her solos, although the Hult acoustics sometimes swallowed up the lower reaches of her voice. Bass Markus Eiche was the authoritative narrator, noble at times and menacing at other times. Soprano Tamara Wilson poured her glorious supple voice and melting pianissimos into the character of the mother and into a beautiful descant during the spiritual “O, By and By.” It was the kind of concert that makes the Oregon Bach Festival unique. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.